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US scientists announce fusion energy breakthrough

Last week, scientists in a California lab achieved fusion ignition, a process that mimics the stars and could lead to a sea change in clean energy and nuclear nonproliferation.

(CN)  — After more than six decades of research, scientists and policymakers at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California announced Tuesday a major breakthrough in fusion energy generation that could have transformative effects on the future of clean energy and national security. 

In what U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer M. Granholm called a “landmark achievement,” researchers surpassed the fusion threshold by directing the energy of 192 laser beams into both sides of a cylinder holding a pellet of fuel. While the lasers delivered 2.05 megajoules of energy to the target, the target ignited and released 3.15 megajoules of energy, "demonstrating for the first time a most fundamental science basis for inertial fusion energy.” 

Temperature inside the cylinder reached 3 million degrees Celsius and “briefly simulated the conditions of a star,” according to Jill Hruby, administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration, or NNSA. 

The Energy Department defines fusion as the process by which two light nuclei combine to form a single heavier nucleus, releasing a large amount of energy. It occurs naturally in the sun and other stars, but scientists first theorized lasers could be used to induce fusion in the 1960s, “kicking off more than 60 years of research and development in lasers, optics, diagnostics, target fabrication, computer modeling and simulation and experimental design," according to a DOE press release.

At Tuesday’s news conference, White House Office of Science and Technology Policy Director Arati Prabhakar said she initially began work on the project as an intern in 1978 and “it took generations of people to achieve this goal.” 

“We have had a theoretical understanding of fusion for over a century, but the journey from knowing to doing can be long and arduous,” Prabhakar said, noting it may be decades still before the technology can be harnessed for practical use. “Today’s milestone shows what we can do with perseverance.”

Kim Budil, director of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, where the breakthrough took place, praised the support of taxpayer dollars and private investment leading to the advancement, noting it was achieved with laser technology dating to the 1980s.

“Progress has taken time … but this achievement opens new scientific realms for us to explore and advances the capabilities of our national security mission,” Budil said, at the same time cautioning “the science and technology challenges on the path to fusion energy are daunting.”

An ignition target bay at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, Calif. The system uses 192 laser beams converging at the center of this giant sphere to make a tiny hydrogen fuel pellet implode. (Damien Jemison/Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory via AP, File)

Budil said the laboratory’s data indicates many hundreds of joules of electricity can be produced using the same process, but the technology isn’t there yet. But now that the “fundamental building block” has been laid, scientists will likely focus on advancements to laser technology, ramping up the cycles of ignition and strengthening containment and transmission systems, Budil said. 

NNSA Deputy Administrator Marv Adams said the achievement also keeps the United States on the forefront of weapons technology. Among other uses, the process will allow scientists to study nuclear explosions without destructive testing, the data can be incorporated in new bomb technology, and it can help the U.S. and its allies reach nonproliferation goals. 

“The achievement we celebrate today indicates that big, important accomplishments often take longer and require more effort than originally thought and these accomplishments are often more than worth the time and effort they took,” Adams said. 

In a statement, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, called the announcement an “astonishing scientific advancement,” noting Congress allocated $624 million to the program in the recent National Defense Authorization Act.

“Making this future clean energy world a reality will require our physicists, innovative workers and brightest minds at our DOE-funded institutions, including the Rochester Laser Lab, to double down on their cutting-edge work," Schumer said.

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